MACLEAN’S REPORTS

IS STEVEN TRUSCOTT INNOCENT?

A 14-year-old boy nearly hanged. He’s now serving life. But did he murder?

JAMES BANNERMAN April 2 1966
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

IS STEVEN TRUSCOTT INNOCENT?

A 14-year-old boy nearly hanged. He’s now serving life. But did he murder?

JAMES BANNERMAN April 2 1966

IS STEVEN TRUSCOTT INNOCENT?

A 14-year-old boy nearly hanged. He’s now serving life. But did he murder?

IN THE EARLY AFTERNOON of June 11, 1959, a search party looking for a 12-year-old girl named Lynne Harper, missing for two days from her home in the RCAF Station at Clinton, Ont., found her body in a wood-lot. She had been raped and murdered. The last person seen with her was 14-year-old Steven Truscott, a school-mate whose father, like Lynne’s, was stationed at Clinton. Forty-eight hours after the discovery of the body, Steven was arrested and charged with the child’s murder. He was brought to trial in the courthouse at Goderich, the county town, on September 16, convicted and sentenced to be hanged. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, appeal was denied, and Steven is still in prison.

A Toronto journalist and public relations writer, Isabel LeBourdais, studied the transcript of the trial. In her own words, “The growing realization . . . that Steven was not guilty and sick, but innocent and normal, and that no one was turning a hand to prove it, changed the mere writing of a magazine article [which had been her first intention] into a moral duty that would involve my life until the duty was done.” The unselfishness of this acceptance of responsibility does Mrs. LeBourdais very great credit; but it might have remained nothing more effective than an honorable gesture if it weren’t that the keenness of her mind and the strength of her determination match her compassion and her sense of duty.

All these qualities are abundantly clear in the book into which, after long and careful research, her originally-proposed magazine article has developed—The Trial of Steven Truscott (McClelland & Stewart, $4.50 hardbound, $2.50 paper). Although she writes well, the book isn’t consistently easy to read. Some of the evidence, especially the medical reports on the condition of the girl’s body, is at once heartrending and sickening. And parts of the other evidence are re-stated from time to time with a frequency which, while necessary to a thorough consideration of the case, gives a certain impression of verbosity. There are also long stretches which have the sustained interest of well-told crime fiction, and the total impact of the book is powerful and sharp. But The Trial of Steven Truscott has significance which goes far beyond any incidental aspect, and makes it virtually required reading for every Canadian seriously concerned about the administration of justice in this country.

If Mrs. LeBourdais is right, and I for one have been convinced by her

book that she is, young Truscott appears to be the victim not only of a miscarriage of justice, but of what there seems reason to believe is imperfectly designed legal machinery for the correction of wrongs done to an accused person by the authorities before, during, and after the trial. The mass of evidence and the protracted length of Steven’s trial make it impossible to summarize briefly without risking oversimplification, omission and consequent distortion. However, at least two salient points can properly be condensed. One is the crucial matter of the time of Lynne Harper’s death. This was determined by two doctors, who were later called as witnesses for the prosecution, at an autopsy carried out by the light of an ordinary standing lamp on the embalming table at a small-town undertaker’s. The doctors examined, among other things, the contents of the dead girl’s stomach, and concluded from their condition that she had been dead for 48 hours—an interval which, in view of confirmed evidence of Steven’s movements, could have meant that he did indeed kill Lynne. The doctors based their conclusion on what they maintained was the length of time needed for digested food to pass from the stomach through the duodenum into the small intestine: normally, said one of the doctors (the other apparently concurring) a process that takes two hours.

On the other hand a doctor called by the defence, who seems to have had rather more specialized experience than those who testified for the prosecution, examined the contents of Lynne’s stomach, which had been frozen in a jar after the autopsy. And he concluded that they had been digesting for at least three or four hours —which, if in fact so, would in itself have established Steven’s innocence. This doctor’s testimony agreed, as to elapsed time for the completion of digestion, with views expressed in standard textbooks by world-recognized authorities. Yet this vitally relevant and well-supported conclusion was given so little consideration at the

trial that one could almost say it was brushed aside; and it doesn’t seem to have been made enough of even by counsel for the defence.

The defence doctor’s evidence as to the rape of poor little Lynne differed quite as markedly from the medical evidence for the prosecution, which contended that the rapist was sexually inept and almost certainly a teen-ager. But the doctors who contended this appear to have seen few or no cases of rape, whereas the doctor for the defence had seen a good many during his service overseas in World War II. And it was his contention that whoever raped Lynne must have been fully adult and highly experienced— something that wasn’t and couldn’t be said of fourteen-year-old Steven.

Isabel LeBourdais ends her book with a statement of her hope that a Royal Commission, either federal or provincial, will be appointed to review the whole case, with very broad terms of reference to allow it to do so thoroughly. I join her in that hope. If, as I urge you to, you read The Trial of Steven Truscott, I think you will join her in it too.

JAMES BANNERMAN